The narrator (whose name is later revealed to be Lilia) recalls the fall of 1971, when she was 10 years old. For a few months, a man named Mr. Pirzada would routinely come to her childhood home for dinner, “bearing confections in his pocket and hopes of ascertaining the life or death of his family.”
Though Lilia’s story is set in 1971, this opening paragraph makes it clear that Lilia herself is now looking back on this time with some distance. The statement that Mr. Pirzada had hopes of “ascertaining the life or death of his family” suggests that there is some sort of conflict going on, and that Mr. Pirzada’s family is caught in the middle of it. But because Lilia was so young at this time, her adult understanding of the high stakes of this period contrasts with her 10-year-old self’s fixation on the “confections” in Mr. Pirzada’s pocket. This early emphasis on sweets also suggests that candy is an important part of how Lilia understands Mr. Pirzada and her relationship with him.
Mr. Pirzada is from Dacca, the capital city of Bangladesh. In the fall of 1971, however, Bangladesh isn’t its own country yet—it’s under Pakistani rule and is known known as East Pakistan. The people in East Pakistan are fighting an increasingly brutal fight for their independence from the rulers in West Pakistan. In the spring of 1971, the Pakistani Army violently invaded Dacca, shot teachers, assaulted women, and killed over 300,000 people.
The Bangladesh War of Independence (also known as the Bangladesh Liberation War) provides the background for most of the action in the story; here, Lilia gives a brief history of that conflict. In the fall, when Mr. Pirzada first starts coming over, war hasn’t been formally declared yet, but the violent conflict leading up to the war has been going on for about six months. By this point, West Pakistan was widely considered to have waged a genocidal campaign against East Pakistani people.
Before this conflict, Mr. Pirzada lived a cozy life in Dacca: he had a nice house, a good job as a botany professor, a wife, and seven daughters whose names all start with “A.” Now, he carries a picture of his daughters in his wallet to show Lilia. He writes to his wife and sends comic books to his daughters, but the conflict has disrupted the postal system in Dacca, so he has not heard from any of his family members in six months.
Immediately after providing historical context, Lilia returns to the human side of the revolution, suggesting that she remembers this war not as distant history but through the eyes of a close family friend. Though Mr. Pirzada has not heard from his family for the duration of the war, he continues to maintain his rituals with them (writing letters to his wife and sending his daughters comic books). This shows that Mr. Pirzada is a devoted husband and father, but it also demonstrates the great emphasis he places on ritual as a way of maintaining family ties.
Mr. Pirzada is here—in the suburb of Boston where Lilia’s family lives—for work: the Pakistani government has given him a grant to study trees and leaves in New England. However, the grant does not provide Mr. Pirzada with enough money to eat well or buy a TV, so he comes over to Lilia’s house to eat dinner and watch the news.
Mr. Pirzada counts on Lilia’s family for two things: homecooked meals and the TV news. Given the conflict happening in Mr. Pirzada’s home city, it seems that food is more than just a necessary routine for him—it’s also a source of comfort and interpersonal connection, things that Mr. Pirzada is no doubt lacking in the absence of his wife and daughters. But while food connects Mr. Pirzada to Lilia’s family, joining them in a shared ritual, the TV is a link to Dacca and to Mr. Pirzada’s own family. Right away, then, it is clear that Mr. Pirzada is living a kind of double life—part of him is at Lilia’s house, and part of him is always back home.
Initially, Lilia doesn’t know why Mr. Pirzada spends so much more time at her house than the rest of her family friends do. All she understands is that her parents, emigrants from India, often miss their homeland’s foods and traditions. In their small suburb, for example, “the supermarket d[oes] not carry mustard oil,” and “neighbors never drop by without an invitation.” Lilia’s parents therefore try to make Indian friends at the university where her father teaches, checking the phonebook for other South Asian last names—which is what leads them to call Mr. Pirzada.
Lilia’s parents, having been born and raised in Calcutta, seem to feel isolated in this small American suburb. Tellingly, one of the ways they feel this isolation is through food—specifically, they feel the absence of mustard oil, a staple in South Asian cooking, in the nearby grocery stores. Here, for the first time of many in the story, specific foods provide links to (or mark the absence of) far-away places and cultures.
Though Lilia cannot recall when Mr. Pirzada started coming over, by the end of September, she’s so used to his presence that she assumes he will come over every night. One evening, while her mother cooks fried spinach and radishes, Lilia asks her father for “a glass for the Indian man.” Her father informs her that Mr. Pirzada will not be coming over that night—and that “more importantly, Mr. Pirzada is no longer considered Indian.”
Even before Lilia and Mr. Pirzada are close, Lilia views him in terms of routines and rituals: he visits the house every night, and so Lilia comes to expect his presence. But just as she assumes Mr. Pirzada will come over, Lilia makes the assumption that he is Indian—indeed, she knows her parents have sought him out because he reminds them of home. Therefore, when Lilia’s father explains that Mr. Pirzada is “no longer” Indian, it is one of the first moments where Lilia’s youthful, simplistic view of her family’s culture is altered by new knowledge of political history.
When Lilia is confused by this new information, her father explains Partition. In 1947, soon after India gained independence from Britain, India and Pakistan split along religious lines. “One moment we were free,” Lilia’s father recalls, “and then we were sliced up […] Hindus here, Muslims here.” As Lilia’s father tells her, Partition was a time of great violence between Hindus (like her family) and Muslims (like Mr. Pirzada). Given this conflict, to many people who survived Partition, “the idea of eating in each other’s company [i]s still unthinkable.”
As Lilia’s father explains here, the religious conflict of Partition has made their family’s interfaith bond with Mr. Pirzada unusual. It is especially telling that he sees a refusal to “eat in each other’s company” as the ultimate marker of conflict—to Lilia’s father, sharing a meal is the most basic act of kindness and courtesy, and so an inability to do so can only signify the deepest rift. Since Lilia’s family does eat with Mr. Pirzada almost every night, this exchange also shows that Lilia’s parents—perhaps because they are so far from the Indian subcontinent itself—are unusually tolerant of people’s differences.
Lilia does not understand this division, because Mr. Pirzada and her parents speak the same language, look similar, and eat the same foods. But Lilia’s father insists that Mr. Pirzada is a Bengali Muslim, and that he might be offended by being called “Indian.” To illustrate his point, her father takes Lilia to the family’s map and directs her attention to the triangle that is South Asia. Lilia is surprised to see that the two parts of Pakistan are separated from each other by so much land. “It was as if California and Connecticut constituted a nation apart from the U.S,” she reflects.
Here, Lilia reckons with the difference between hard facts and personal experience. On the map, India and Pakistan are different countries (as Lilia observes, India is orange and Pakistan is yellow). But if Lilia sees difference on the map, she sees only similarity in her living room—Mr. Pirzada and her parents seem to have all the most important things in common, including shared language and tastes. Also worth noting is the fact that Lilia makes sense of the geography South Asia with a comparison to the U.S. (“it was if California and Connecticut constituted a nation apart”). That Lilia makes this comparison suggests that her knowledge of the world is extremely U.S.-centric, which begins to hint that her school may have a narrow curriculum.
Lilia’s father assumes she is aware of the conflict in East Pakistan; Lilia is not, but she does not want her to father to know this. As Lilia’s mother drains the rice, her father asks Lilia what she’s learning at school, as she is clearly not being taught about East Pakistan’s fight for independence. Lilia’s mother, however, believes Lilia is being taught “plenty.” Her mother thinks that because they live in the U.S. now, it is good for Lilia to have a real American education.
In this passage, Lilia is made self-conscious—perhaps for the first time—about her lack of knowledge about the world. Moreover, this exchange reveals an important difference between Lilia’s parents. While her father seems regretful that Lilia is so sheltered, her mother is grateful that Lilia is being given an authentically American childhood. To Lilia’s mother, a lack of awareness about current events is part of being an American child.
Lilia’s mother reflects on her own childhood, which was filled with violence, food rations, and educational pressure. She is glad her daughter will not have to experience the same thing. She thinks it is unreasonable to expect that Lilia will be taught about Partition, but Lilia’s father continues to worry, asking, “what does she learn about the world?”
Lilia’s parents grew up in India during the tumultuous, violent years around Indian independence and Partition. Though Lilia’s father still laments his daughter’s ignorance, Lilia’s mother reveals here that she is still haunted by her own war-torn childhood. Lilia’s mother’s firsthand experience of conflict (which Lilia’s father shares) also likely impacts her emotional response to the fighting in Dacca. While Lilia’s only knowledge of war comes from TV, her parents are better able to empathize with the people in danger.
Lilia learns exclusively U.S. history and geography, with a special emphasis on the American Revolution. She is taken on field trips to important sites of U.S. history, like the Freedom Trail and Bunker Hill, and she makes colorful dioramas of George Washington. Lilia can find the Thirteen Colonies on a map effortlessly, because she has been tested on them so often.
Lilia, realizing the gaps in her knowledge, reflects on the limited history she is taught at school. Lilia learns about the American Revolution every year, hinting that her teachers would rather dwell on long-ago battles than turn their attention to more relevant conflicts. For example, she has never been taught about the (much more recent) Partition of South Asia. Moreover, Lilia’s teachers present a kid-friendly version of the Revolutionary War: Lilia and her classmates go on field trips and makes puppets rather than learning about the human costs of war. At home, Lilia sees the pain of the Bengali independence movement firsthand, but at school, she learns to see revolution as something cheerful and simplistic.
The next evening, Mr. Pirzada arrives at six, having walked over from the dormitory where he lives. He shakes hands with Lilia’s father and, as always, Lilia takes his coat. Mr. Pirzada is always well-dressed, and he stands very straight, “as if balancing in either hand two suitcases of equal weight.” He has thick lashes, a mustache, and ear hair that Lilia thinks helps him “block out the unpleasant traffic of life.” He also wears a black wool fez that Lilia never sees him without.
Here, Lilia explains the first ritual she shares with Mr. Pirzada: she always takes his coat when he arrives at her house. More importantly, however, this passage reveals Mr. Pirzada’s elegance and his sense of propriety. In addition to his ear hair (which Lilia childishly guesses helps him “block out” the bad news from East Pakistan), Lilia notices Mr. Pirzada’s fez, a hat typically associated with Islam. Lilia’s assessment that Mr. Pirzada is holding “two suitcases of equal weight” is especially telling. Mr. Pirzada is indeed always “balancing,” trying to live his life in the U.S. while remaining focused on his wife and daughters back in Dacca.
When Mr. Pirzada arrives, he jokes that he is “‘another refugee […] on Indian territory.’” Lilia’s father responds that there are currently nine million refugees from Dacca in India. Lilia notes that Mr. Pirzada’s coat, which always “carries the faint smell of limes,” has a hand-stitched label that reads “Z. Sayeed, Suitors.”
This exchange between Mr. Pirzada and Lilia’s father demonstrates how much their lives in the U.S. are tied to their lives back in South Asia, where the conflict is escalating every day. Furthermore, Mr. Pirzada is a refugee in some sense—though he came to the U.S. for work, he is no longer able to return to his home country safely. Lilia’s observation that Mr. Pirzada’s coat is hand-tailored is also notable. Although Mr. Pirzada can’t afford a TV or good food in the U.S., his handmade (and probably expensive) coat is a hint that he occupied a higher class status in Dacca. The coat’s “faint smell of limes” also gives the sense that Mr. Pirzada is carrying a piece of East Pakistan with him, since limes are a staple crop and a common ingredient in South Asia.
Mr. Pirzada takes off his shoes, which are muddy—he likes to stop and study the trees on his walk to Lilia’s family’s house. Once he has taken off his coat and shoes, he grazes Lilia’s throat, “the way a person feels for solidity behind a wall.” Then, Mr. Pirzada follows Lilia’s father into the living room, where the TV is playing local news. Lilia’s mother offers Mr. Pirzada a kebab, and as Mr. Pirzada eats, he wonders if the refugees in Dacca are well-fed.
Mr. Pirzada’s love of trees suggests that he is a gentle man, one fascinated by the world around him. On another note, their coat ritual allows Mr. Pirzada to feel some measure of “solidity” even as his country is in chaos, and Mr. Pirzada responds to Lilia’s help with an almost fatherly touch. This connection between Lilia’s family and Mr. Pirzada’s own is underscored when he eats Lilia’s mother’s kebab—the South Asian dish instantly makes him think of people back in Dacca, including his wife and daughters.
As is his tradition, Mr. Pirzada presents Lilia with a candy: this time, it is a plastic egg filled with cinnamon hearts. Lilia awaits this “ritual” with both dread and delight—she is impressed with Mr. Pirzada’s elegance, but sometimes his ease makes her feel “like a stranger in [her] own home.” Lilia struggles to express her gratitude for these desserts; whenever she tries to thank Mr. Pirzada, he complains that he is thanked for everything in the U.S., and jokes that “if I am buried in this country, I will be thanked, no doubt, at my funeral.”
This is Lilia and Mr. Pirzada’s most important ritual, the one that allows them to create an almost familial bond. Even when she and Mr. Pirzada struggle to talk to each other, the ritual of gift-giving allows them to grow comfortable with each other and to express care for each other. Interestingly, however, Mr. Pirzada’s comfort in Lilia’s space and with her parents sometimes makes her feel like “a stranger in [her] own home.” Perhaps Lilia’s newfound sense of estrangement comes from the fact that Mr. Pirzada and her parents, having grown up on the Indian subcontinent, share a cultural background that Lilia herself does not. Lilia, for example, automatically thanks Mr. Pirzada, because that is the custom in the U.S. He, however, finds such constant gratitude strange and perhaps insincere.
Lilia recalls that she could never eat the candy Mr. Pirzada gave her right away, because it seemed too special. Rather, Lilia stores these treats like they are jewels, placing each one in the sandalwood box that her grandmother used to use for ground Areca nuts. This box is the “only memento” Lilia has of her grandmother, whom she never met. Some nights, before she brushes her teeth, Lilia will open the box and eat one of Mr. Pirzada’s gifts.
This passage shows how the candy allows Lilia to connect not only with Mr. Pirzada but with people like her grandmother, whom Lilia has never actually met. By storing candy in this box—which Lilia’s grandmother used to store areca nuts, themselves a kind of edible fruit seed—Lilia is able to connect with people and places she has never known. Just as food connects Mr. Pirzada to his wife and daughters, then, food also helps Lilia connect with her family and cultural heritage across space and times.
Tonight, Mr. Pirzada eats with the family—as usual—in the living room, to have an unobstructed view of the TV news. As they watch, Lilia’s mother brings out a variety of traditional Indian dishes. Lilia helps with water, lemon wedges, and chili peppers; her parents buy these peppers in bulk in Chinatown, and Mr. Pirzada and her parents like to crush the chilis into their food.
Here, Lilia’s family dynamic is quite literally reconfigured by the conflict in East Pakistan: rather than eating their meals at the dining table, they eat in front of the TV so as not to miss any updates on the war. While the TV links the characters to Dacca in one way, the food links them in another. The chili peppers (which, like mustard oil, are unavailable in Lilia’s small town) and Indian dishes remind the adults of happier times in Calcutta and Dacca.
Lilia studies Mr. Pirzada to figure out “what makes him different”—“not an Indian.” She notes that Mr. Pirzada always takes out a watch and puts it on the coffee table while they eat. The watch is set to Dacca time, and Lilia becomes “uneasy” when she realizes that for Mr. Pirzada, “life [is] being lived in Dacca first.” While her family eats dinner, he is imagining his daughters waking up and getting ready for school. “Our meals, our actions,” Lilia reflects, “were only a shadow of what had already happened there, a lagging ghost of where Mr. Pirzada belonged.”
While the watch on Mr. Pirzada’s watch serves a practical purpose, allowing him to show up on time for his nightly dinner ritual with Lilia’s family, the watch is also his attempt to remain connected to his wife and daughters. By setting the watch 11 hours ahead, Mr. Pirzada tries to share time with his daughters, picturing their morning even as he goes about his night. On the one hand, then, this passage demonstrates the difficulty of living in diaspora: Mr. Pirzada struggles to “belong” in the U.S., separated from his wife and daughters not only by miles and conflict but by that 11-hour time lag. His life in the U.S. is only a “lagging ghost” of his life in East Pakistan, where “life is being lived first”—in this sense, Mr. Pirzada probably feels left out of what his family is experiencing. On the other hand, these two watches once again point to the story’s emphasis on ritual, as rituals allow Mr. Pirzada’s sense of connection with his family to persist through even the most difficult conditions.
Usually, Lilia reads during the evening news, but tonight her father makes her watch it. On TV, she sees military tanks, burning buildings, and people fleeing. Lilia watches Mr. Pirzada watch the TV, but he betrays little emotion.
Lilia’s father, perhaps still concerned that his daughter does not know enough about the world, wants her to see what is happening in Dacca—even though it is graphic and upsetting. Interestingly, though, Lilia watches Mr. Pirzada more than she watches the television; she knows that what they see on TV is deeply personal to him, and so she tries to make sense of the conflict by watching her beloved friend for a reaction. The fact that Mr. Pirzada shows no emotion again emphasizes his grace under pressure and suggests that he is a very stoic person.
At the commercial break, Lilia’s mother goes to get more rice, and her father and Mr. Pirzada discuss politics. As Lilia’s father gives her more fish, he tells her to watch what “children your age […] do to survive.” Lilia has lost her appetite, and instead she watches Mr. Pirzada calmly eat his rice and lentils. She wonders if Mr. Pirzada is always so well-dressed so that he can “endure with dignity” whatever new atrocity appears on the screen. She also imagines his relief at seeing his wife and daughters safe on TV, but that never happens.
This exchange marks a critical moment in Lilia’s coming of age: faced for the first time with the suffering happening in another part of the world, Lilia reflects on her own relative privilege and safety compared to what children in East Pakistan must “do to survive.” But while Lilia, overcome with this new awareness of hardship, is unable to eat, Mr. Pirzada “calmly” continues with his meal. This lentil dish—and the ritual surrounding it—perhaps allows Mr. Pirzada to connect with a different version of Dacca, one defined not by falling buildings but by the meals he used to share with his family. Since Mr. Pirzada never gets reassurance from the TV news (his wife and daughters never show up onscreen), he must look for solace elsewhere.
Later that night, Lilia struggles to feel the “ceremonial satisfaction” she normally does when she puts Mr. Pirzada’s candies away. She has trouble reconciling Mr. Pirzada with the “unruly, sweltering world” she has just seen on TV. Lilia begins to picture Mr. Pirzada’s wife and daughters in the violence, and she panics. She tries to distract herself from these thoughts by looking around her room at the familiar yellow curtains and the place on the wall where her father marks her height. But she is unable to banish the gory images from her mind.
Lilia struggles to make sense of the fact that Mr. Pirzada, someone she cares about, is intimately connected to the “sweltering” conflict she has seen on TV. Faced with this very adult subject matter, Lilia tries to find comfort in the familiarity of her room—the yellow curtains and the markings of her height both signify youth and innocence. But Lilia, no longer so innocent after what she has seen on TV, is unable to find comfort.
Lilia begins to suspect that Mr. Pirzada’s family is dead. To ward off this feeling, she eats a candy Mr. Pirzada has given her, and as she chews, she prays that his family is safe and sound—this is the first time Lilia has ever prayed in her life. That night, she does not brush her teeth, because she fears that if she rinses the candy taste out of her mouth, she will rinse out the prayer as well.
This passage marks the contrast between the tragic circumstances in East Pakistan that Lilia is trying to make sense of and her still-youthful way of processing things. Even as she makes the mature decision to pray for Mr. Pirzada (something she hasn’t grown up doing) her superstition that she might accidentally wash the prayer out of her mouth is clearly childish. Here, then, Lilia is struggling to comprehend and help with a situation far more dire than anything she has ever encountered before. On another note, Lilia’s association of the candy with Mr. Pirzada’s family again suggests that food can be a powerful way of connecting with people, even across vast distances.
Nobody at Lilia’s school discusses what is happening in East Pakistan. Everyone just keeps focusing on the long-ago American Revolution—they memorize parts of the Declaration of Independence, and boys pretend to be British Redcoats and American colonists at recess. With her friend Dora, Lilia is assigned to do a report on the British surrender at Yorktown, the battle that marked the end of the American Revolution. Mrs. Kenyon, the teacher who assigned the project, sends the two girls to the library to do research.
The contrast between Lilia’s home life—where news from Dacca is always on TV—and Lilia’s school life is stark. While revolution is something that Lilia, her parents, and Mr. Pirzada are deeply and personally connected to at home, at school, revolution is a merely game to be played at recess. Moreover, it is important that Lilia’s project is on the Battle of Yorktown, the battle most associated with American victory. Once again, the narrative of independence that Lilia gets at school is much more straightforward and optimistic than the one she experiences at home.
While at the library, Lilia stumbles into the “Asia” section of books. She eventually finds a book about Pakistan, and she becomes engrossed in a chapter about Dacca, where Mr. Pirzada is from. Dora interrupts Lilia’s reading to tell her that Mrs. Kenyon is coming to check on their progress. When Mrs. Kenyon sees that Lilia is reading about Pakistan, she tells Lilia that if the book is not for her report, there is “no reason to consult it.” She takes the book from Lilia and puts it back on the shelf.
Just as Lilia prayed without being taught to, now she is determined to find out more about South Asia on her own terms. Her teacher’s refusal to let Lilia do this research then underscores the narrow, exclusionary view that Lilia’s school takes of the world: the curriculum teaches that only the U.S. is important, and that there is “no reason” to learn about anything else. Tellingly, this is the only specific anecdote from school that Lilia includes in the entire story, suggesting that Mrs. Kenyon’s reprimand has stayed with Lilia for many years.
As time goes on, Dacca is less and less discussed on the TV news, even though the violence continues to escalate. Still, Mr. Pirzada “enjoy[s] long, leisurely meals” with Lilia’s parents. He stays late into the night, and when the adults can no longer discuss politics, they move on to other topics, like the men’s work and “the peculiar eating habits” of Lilia’s mother’s American co-workers.
Just as Mrs. Kenyon paid no mind to the conflict, more and more Americans are turning their attention away from the situation in East Pakistan—even though it is getting worse for the people who are there. Without reliable information about the war, Mr. Pirzada starts spending more time and seeking more comfort from Lilia’s family. Food plays an especially interesting role in this passage: it allows Mr. Pirzada “leisure” during a crisis, but it also gives him solidarity with Lilia’s parents. The three adults poke fun at the “peculiar” eating habits of the Americans around them, and in doing so, are able to implicitly share their feelings of cultural isolation.
On these nights, Lilia’s parents eventually send her to bed—but from her bedroom, Lilia still hears the adults listening to Kishore Kumar cassettes, playing games, and “anticipating the birth of a nation on the other side of the world.” As Lilia falls asleep, she wants “to console Mr. Pirzada somehow,” but there is nothing she can do besides eat his candy and pray for his family in Dacca.
Lilia has begun to refuse to accept her parents’ sheltering: here, she stays up past her bedtime, listening to her parents’ conversations through the floor. However, Lilia is simultaneously realizing that even as she gains awareness, she does not gain any power to “console Mr. Pirzada” in his time of need. It is also worth noting the complex relationship to independence articulated in this passage: though the conflict is fraught for Mr. Pirzada and Lilia’s parents, they are also excited about the possibility of Bengali independence (‘the birth of a nation”).
In October, Mr. Pirzada asks about the pumpkins he sees on people’s doorsteps, so Lilia explains the concept of a Halloween jack-o’-lantern. The next evening, Lilia’s mother brings a pumpkin home, and Mr. Pirzada tells Lilia he will help her carve it. For the first time, everybody gathers around the dining table instead of watching the TV. Lilia shows Mr. Pirzada how he should carve the pumpkin, and he begins to cut off the top and make holes for eyes.
Though often Mr. Pirzada possesses cultural knowledge that Lilia does not have, here, the roles are reversed, as Lilia is able to educate Mr. Pirzada about an American tradition. In this moment Mr. Pirzada forgoes the TV—with its potential for updates about his family—in favor of helping Lilia carve the pumpkin, which is a testament to how important his fatherly relationship with Lilia has become to him. The move to the dining room table rather than the coffee table is symbolically important, as it suggests that Lilia’s family and Mr. Pirzada are able to be more present in this moment than they have been in the rest of the story.
Lilia and Mr. Pirzada debate whether they want the jack-o’-lantern’s mouth to be a smile or a frown. Mr. Pirzada wields the knife with ease—but as he carves, a reporter on the news announces that India will go to war with Pakistan unless other countries volunteer to take East Pakistani refugees. Mr. Pirzada’s hand slips, and he damages the jack-o’-lantern’s mouth.
This moment of family unity is quickly disrupted by news on TV, emphasizing that there is never an instant when Mr. Pirzada’s mind is not on Dacca. It is also important to note the visceral, physical toll this news takes on Mr. Pirzada. Whereas Lilia’s school teaches revolution as something distant and historical, Lilia here realizes the intense emotional impacts revolution can have (even on people thousands of miles away). Moreover, the fact that this news interrupts carving the pumpkin and ruins the jack-o’-lantern (something quintessentially Western) implies that Mr. Pirzada will never be able to fully immerse himself in the U.S. and its traditions while his family is at risk in East Pakistan.
Mr. Pirzada offers to buy another pumpkin, but Lilia’s father carves around the gash, turning the pumpkin’s mouth into a gaping hole. The pumpkin, which Lilia had meant to look frightening and fierce, now looks astonished instead.
This look of astonishment reflects the surprise and disorientation that Mr. Pirzada, far from home and fearful for his family, experiences every day. The ruined pumpkin also shows, again, that Lilia’s childhood pleasures are being disrupted and altered by the intensity of the conflict abroad.
Both Lilia and Dora dress up as green-faced witches for Halloween. Lilia’s mother gives them old basmati rice sacks to trick-or-treat with—this is the first year the girls will be allowed to trick-or-treat by themselves, without parental supervision. Lilia’s father makes her synchronize her watch to his and tells her to keep the watch on the entire night.
This is another moment of cultural exchange: the typical American tradition of trick-or-treating is, in Lilia’s house, done with sacks used to carry Indian basmati rice. On another note, when Lilia’s father asks her to synchronize her watch to his, he is doing something similar to what Mr. Pirzada does with his pocket watch (the one set to Dacca time). By synchronizing their watches, Lilia and her father share time in order to stay connected with each other, just as Mr. Pirzada tries to share time with his daughters.
Mr. Pirzada brings Lilia candy, as he always does, but he jokes that she does not need it tonight, since it’s Halloween. Mr. Pirzada checks to see that Lilia will be warm enough under her costume. He then takes off his own coat, but as Lilia goes to grab it, she is distracted by Dora calling for help with her makeup.
In the chaos of Halloween, both of Lilia’s rituals with Mr. Pirzada are disrupted: she does not take off his coat, and she does not dwell on his candy (as she will be getting a lot more when she goes trick-or-treating). Since ritual is so important to Lilia’s bond with Mr. Pirzada, this break in the ritual foreshadows the larger break in their relationship that is soon to come.
Lilia's father and Mr. Pirzada linger in the living room, listening to the sounds of other trick-or-treaters. Lilia’s father warns Lilia to be safe, and Mr. Pirzada worries that trick-or-treating is dangerous. Lilia’s mother assures him that it is “tradition,” and that all the children will be safe.
Here, Mr. Pirzada’s anxieties over his flesh-and-blood daughters spill into his relationship with Lilia. Though he rationally knows trick-or-treating poses little danger, he cannot help worrying about being separated from Lilia (who acts a surrogate daughter) at the same time as he is separated from his girls back home.
Mr. Pirzada volunteers to accompany Lilia and Dora—he begins to fret about rain or that the girls will get lost, and his eyes betray a “panic” that frightens Lilia. “Don’t worry,” Lilia tells Mr. Pirzada. She has wanted to say these words many times to comfort him about his own family, and she is disappointed that she can only comfort Mr. Pirzada in reference to herself. Mr. Pirzada finally lets her and Dora go by themselves. “If the lady insists,” he says to Lilia.
In this exchange, Lilia directly draws a parallel between her relationship with Mr. Pirzada and the one he shares with his daughters. When she tells him not to worry, she is ashamed that it is for her “own sake” and not for that of his family, who are in much more real and constant danger. This is also another moment in which Lilia shows her newfound maturity. Her sense of “shame” and insufficiency is a hallmark of her newfound awareness of life’s difficulty—though she wants to help, she is realistic about her inability to do so beyond her prayers.
As Dora and Lilia leave, Mr. Pirzada stands in Lilia’s family’s driveway and waves to them. Dora asks Lilia why Mr. Pirzada wanted to come with them. Lilia explains that Mr. Pirzada’s daughters are “missing,” but then she worries that saying this out loud makes it true. Lilia backtracks, telling Dora, “I meant, he misses them. They live in a different country, and he hasn’t seen them in a while, that’s all.”
Again, Lilia is confronted with the difference between her own perspective and that of her classmates: Dora cannot comprehend that Mr. Pirzada’s daughters could actually be in danger, whereas Lilia has had to come to terms with this very real possibility. However, Lilia is not fully grown-up in her view: she still hold childish superstitions, as is evident in her fear that saying something out loud makes it true. Finally, the story plays with the word “missing” here: it can mark both a permanent absence (as in, the daughters have gone “missing”) or a longing for reunion (as in, Mr. Pirzada has not seen his daughters in “a while,” but he will see them again soon).
Lilia admires all the Halloween decorations in her neighborhood. As she and Dora go house to house, collecting candy, some of the parents tell Lilia that they have “never seen an Indian witch before.” Lilia and Dora see signs of teenage pranks (toilet paper and cracked eggs) as they walk to Dora’s house. By the time the girls arrive at Dora’s, their feet hurt from walking, and their hands hurt from the burlap rice sacks.
Lilia’s experience of Halloween, a night she was very excited for, is clearly colored by her awareness of Mr. Pirzada’s anxiety—she pays attention not to the candy and costumes but to the darker pranks and the discomfort in her body. Most notably, this is one of the moments in which Lilia most directly encounters prejudice: the people in her town (who are presumably white) comment on her race, making Lilia feel different and alienated even though she and Dora are dressed exactly the same and doing the exact same thing.
Dora’s mother gives the girls popcorn and cider, and she reminds Lilia to call home. When Lilia calls her mother, she hears the TV on in the background. When she hangs up, she realizes that the TV is not even on in Dora’s house. Dora’s father is reading a magazine with a glass of wine next to him; there is saxophone music coming from the stereo, but no television news.
In Lilia’s house, the TV is always on—it is both a crucial source of information and a source of pain (whenever bad news comes out of East Pakistan). The absence of the TV news in Dora’s house demonstrates Dora and her family’s lack of awareness about what is going on in the world. But also, Dora’s home is carefree (there is a glass of wine and pleasant saxophone music) in a way that Lilia’s home, constantly interrupted by talk of war, cannot be. Here, Lilia is perhaps reckoning with the unique knowledge—and unique pain—that comes with always being tuned in to news from another part of the world.
After Lilia and Dora have gone through all of their candy, Lilia returns home to see that her jack-o’-lantern has been smashed in the driveway. Lilia starts to tear up, and she expects that her family and Mr. Pirzada will be similarly distressed. But when she enters the house, the three adults are sitting on the sofa, with the TV turned off. Mr. Pirzada has his head in his hands, but he is not concerned about the jack-o’-lantern.
Symbolically, the smashed jack-o’-lantern signifies several things. First, it marks another moment in which Lilia is disillusioned from her youthful excitement about Halloween. Second, since Lilia carved this jack-o’-lantern with Mr. Pirzada, the destruction of the pumpkin foreshadows the end of her bond with Mr. Pirzada. Finally, the fact that the jack-o’-lantern has been smashed runs parallel to the heightened crisis in South Asia—and the adults’ disinterest in the pumpkin reflects their single-minded focus on that turmoil.
Lilia explains that that night, the adults had learned that Dacca would not accept anything less than full independence—and the war would be waged entirely on East Pakistani soil. War is officially declared on December 4th and lasts for 12 days. On December 16th, Dacca declares victory, and East Pakistan becomes the independent nation that is now known as Bangladesh. In retrospect, Lilla emphasizes that “all of these facts I know only now […] for they are available to me in any history book, in any library. But then it remained […] a remote mystery with haphazard clues.”
Here, Lilia recalls her experience of the Bangladesh Liberation War—the 12 days when India had entered the fray and the conflict was most intense. She reveals that her knowledge of the geopolitical context of the war came later, through history books; as a child, her understanding of the situation was “haphazard,” the result of piecing together the scattered emotional “clues” of her loved ones’ reactions. Lilia’s recollection therefore illustrates the difference between learning about a revolution, as she does at school, and living through one. While a book explains the names and dates of war, directly participating in or being connected to an independence movement—especially when its success is in doubt—is a much more confusing and unnerving experience.
During those 12 days of war, Lilla’s father no longer asks her to watch the news, Mr. Pirzada stops bringing candy, and her mother only cooks rice and eggs. Some nights, Mr. Pirzada sleeps on Lilia’s family’s couch; other nights, Lilia’s parents are on the phone with relatives from Calcutta. During this time, Lilia’s parents and Mr. Pirzada act as “a single person, sharing a single meal, a single body, a single silence, and a single fear.”
Lilia’s parents and Mr. Pirzada are completely united here: they share everything, from late nights to bodily needs to their “single fear” about Mr. Pirzada’s family. Tellingly, Lilia is not part of this “single person:” her father no longer lets her watch the news, and Lilia is reminded of both her youth and her lack of familiarity with South Asia. It is also important that in this moment of crisis, rituals around food cease: Mr. Pirzada no longer brings candy, and Lilia’s mother no longer cooks elaborate dishes. If food is an important source of connection both culturally and interpersonally, then the absence of food suggests a moment in which those ties are broken, which these 12 days certainly seem to be.
In January, Mr. Pirzada returns home to Dacca to see what remains of his life there. In retrospect, Lilia does not remember what their last meal together was like, but she knows that her father drove him to the airport while she was at school. Lilia and her family continue to watch the news at dinner—now without their guest—and they learn that Dacca is slowly rebuilding. More than one million houses were wrecked by the war, and the refugees returning from India now face famine and unemployment. Lilia pictures Mr. Pirzada looking for his family; she stares at the map on her wall and realizes it is now outdated.
Though Lilia does not explicitly state it, her inability to remember saying goodbye to Mr. Pirzada suggests that even though their relationship ended, she never got a sense of closure. Even as the geopolitical situation improves, then, Lilia personally struggles to feel satisfaction. This disconnect is symbolized by the map on her family’s wall—as soon as Lilia got a grasp of the Indian subcontinent’s geography, it changed, reflecting her own disorientation regarding Mr. Pirzada and the war.
During the Muslim New Year, Mr. Pirzada sends a card to Lilia’s family—this is the first time they have heard from him since he left. He explains that he has been reunited with his wife and children, who escaped the worst violence at a relative’s house outside of Dacca. Mr. Pirzada writes that his daughters are taller now, but that he still has trouble keeping track of their “A” names. At the end of the letter, he thanks Lilia’s family but feels that he will never be able to properly express his gratitude.
Mr. Pirzada, now fully back in the swing of his Dacca traditions, breaks with one of his most important rituals with Lilia. He thanks her (and her family), even though he once asked Lilia never to thank him, because this is how strangers in the U.S. (rather than close friends or family members) talk to one another. Symbolically, then, this expression of gratitude also marks the end of Mr. Pirzada’s relationship with Lilia and her parents.
Lilia’s mother suggests a toasts for Mr. Pirzada, but Lilia does not feel like celebrating. Instead, though Mr. Pirzada has been gone for months, Lilia only now realizes how much she misses him, “just as he had missed his wife and daughters for so many months.” Lilia’s parents predict—correctly—that they will never Mr. Pirzada again. For the first time since January, Lilia does not eat a piece of candy before bed; “there [is] no need to.” Eventually, Lilia throws the candy away.
Here, Lilia understands just how important Mr. Pirzada has become for her, to the extent that he seems like a family member—she misses him “just as he had missed his wife and daughters.” But in making the comparison between Mr. Pirzada’s sadness and her own, Lilia also realizes that her feelings of loss are not unique to her but are rather an inherent part of living in diaspora. Like Mr. Pirzada and her parents, she has learned that living far away from loved ones is always going to be painful. Crucially, Lilia’s decision to throw the candy (a symbol of her connection to Mr. Pirzada) away the ends the story: having accepted that she has lost Mr. Pirzada, this symbolic act perhaps helps Lilia to grieve and move on from their bond.